Panthers will test Saints at both ends

Siena is coming off a rugged stretch in which the Saints played six games in 12 days. Now, they’ve r
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Siena is coming off a rugged stretch in which the Saints played six games in 12 days.

Now, they’ve reached a part of the schedule where they play just once in 13 days, but to call that a respite would do a grave disservice to that single opponent.

What’s not to like about the Pittsburgh Panthers heading into a 9:30 game tonight that will be broadcast on ESPN2 from the Petersen Events Center?

The Panthers are ranked No. 3 in the country, they’re 10-0 for the sixth straight season under head coach Jamie Dixon and they’ve sold out the 12,508-seat PEC for every game since it opened seven seasons ago. They’re 114-10 (.912) at home during that span.

The Pitt lineup boasts two Wooden Award finalists, senior forward Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, a 6-foot-7, 265-pound rebounding machine who will severely test Siena’s front line.

One thing in the Saints’ corner is that they’re used to playing teams like this, but despite the parity in Division I college basketball that has elevated some mid-majors, there’s still a group of teams that fall in the elite category, and Pitt is certainly one of them.

“Pitt is the best team I have seen so far on our schedule,” Siena head coachy Fran McCaffery said. “They are deep, they’re big, they have experience. They really execute extremely well, which you would expect from a senior point guard like Levance Fields. I think Sam Young, right now, has established himself as a serious Player of the Year candidate, when you look at what he does and the numbers.”

Young (6-6, 220) is averaging 20.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, he’s shooting 53.0 percent from the field and 39.0 percent from three-point range, and he has committed just eight fouls in 10 games while averaging 29.0 minutes.

Blair is averaging 14.6 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, almost half of which have come on the offensive glass.

Siena’s Alex Franklin and Ryan Rossiter will need all the help they can get in the rebounding department. The Saints are averaging about three fewer rebounds per game than their opponents, which isn’t bad compared to last year, but Pitt is averaging plus-11.

“I think he’s [Blair] a concern for every team that plays them the rest of the year,” McCaffery said. “He’s one of the best rebounders I’ve ever seen.

“He has phenomenal rebounding instincts. He’s always where the ball comes off the rim. And it’s not just because he’s big and strong. There’s a lot of big and strong guys. They don’t all average 5.5 offensive rebounds a game. He’s relentless.”

Besides rebounding, another challenge Siena faces is that Pitt is terrific at stopping the drive in the halfcourt defense.

That’s the bread and butter of Siena’s offense, and if the Saints can’t find ways to get to the rim, it could turn them into a three-point shooting team, which hasn’t been one of their fortes, so far.

“This is nothing complicated,” McCaffery said. “They get after you. When they get over toward the ball, they’re up on the ball. They get in the passing lanes. They pressure it. And if you put it on the deck, they contest, and if you drive it to the hole they contest that.

“They’re going to make you make tough shots. They’re going to make you struggle to make the normal cuts and passes that you like to make. So they’re just going to make it hard for you to score. It’s what we all try to do; they just do it really well.”

The Panthers have played a light schedule, especially compared to what they expect to face in the Big East, but they handled Washington State, 57-43.

Pitt, which lost to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, has won 36 straight non-conference games at the PEC.

“They’re going to run what they want to run. They defend,” McCaffery said. “The players who they want to get shots are going to get shots. So you can’t go on the road and turn the ball over. You can’t take quick, crazy shots and you can’t let it get away from us like we did against Tennessee.”

Siena stayed with Tennessee most of the way in the first round of the Old Spice Classic, but had a short lapse near the end of the first half in which the Volunteers scored 18 straight.

“We always talk about the same thing – you have to stay away from the run,” McCaffery said. “This is a team that can go on a run against you. Sometimes they just gradually pull away from you; they’re really good at that. But you have to stay away from the run. The 14-0, 14-2 runs when you’re on the road. You can’t overcome that. If you take the Tennessee game and get rid of the 4-5 minute stretch of that game, it’s a different game, but it happened, so we lost by 20.”

Siena is 2-0 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and 5-3 overall after beating Marist last week.

They might get junior forward Cory Magee back for this game, but he isn’t expected to play much after missing six weeks with a concussion.

Categories: College Sports

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